2016 NFL Preview: AFC West

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The AFC West is an interesting division this year as they are the division with the defending champions and yet it is a hard division to predict.

It is not uncommon in a new season as the Super Bowl hangover is a real thing, at least in a way.

Championship teams don’t necessarily suffer due to their celebrations over a championship win.

Instead, they suffer because the championship players are a hot commodity and they often take their championship rings to get to a new tax bracket.

More than a few players have taken a championship and translated it into a big contract with another team.

That is the real championship hangover and the Denver Broncos were far from immune to the effects of the championship.

They lost a number of big players for their team and as a result, they are not the team that everyone is looking to this year.

The Broncos are a team looking to prove to everyone that they still have a team that can win the Super Bowl.

Only adding fuel to the fire in this division is that fact that two more teams are finding their way into the battle.

The Oakland Raiders are a team that everyone seems to be picking as the dark horse.

With a young team that is very talented, they made massive strides last year and put everyone on notice for 2016.football-sidebar

The Kansas City Chiefs were right on the heels of the Broncos for most of the year and they return for another year where they hope to take advantage of a new-look Broncos team to take the division title this year.

The San Diego Chargers are a team that nobody seems to think much of but they still have talent and could surprise some with big wins.

At first look, the Broncos should take this division as they are the defending champions and have the best team.

That is not the case this year though and for the fans that makes everything better.

Plenty of eyes will be on the Broncos and while they focus on the champions a number of other teams will look to sneak it.

It could make the AFC West one of the best divisions in football this year as they certainly have the talent in this division to be the best.

Whether they can do it is the major question though as the Broncos have the pressure from a championship, the Chiefs have the pressure of being favourites to win it all from many of the top analysts, while the Raiders have the pressure of the team that many are looking towards to see what the young team can do.

If all three of these teams comes through and deal with that pressure the battle for the top spot in the division and that battle could produce another playoff team.

If more than one of the teams can’t deal with that pressure the division may be taken easily by one of the teams.

That will likely be the difference as everyone is the favourite for someone else in one of the most unpredictable divisions of the year.

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The Broncos put together the perfect season last year even if it wasn’t necessarily a perfect performance all of the time. How they got there doesn’t really matter anymore as the Broncos are the defending Super Bowl Champions. That championship is all that matters this year as it is both a blessing and a curse. They now have to match that performance to have a successful year but will need to do it without some very important pieces. One of the biggest missing pieces will likely be Peyton Manning who retired after winning the Super Bowl. He wasn’t the old Manning but he was still a stable piece of the offence that came in at the end of the year to push them to the playoffs and the Super Bowl. The bigger loss, though, is Brock Osweiler as he was supposed to be the man to replace Manning as the starter. His departure left the Broncos without a true starting quarterback and so they went looking signing Mark Sanchez and drafting Paxton Lynch. After a long battle in the training camp, Sanchez was cut and Trevor Siemian was named the starter ahead of Lynch. There is a lot of pressure in following a hall of famer and Siemian has that task this year in his first starting role. He will have experience around him to help out as the rest of the offence has remained relatively intact. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders will be big targets on the sides while C.J. Anderson returns to lead the running game that was a massive boost heading into the playoffs. The defence was not safe from changes either though as Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan both left for bigger contracts. On the line, Jackson is a big loss as his departure leaves Derek Wolfe and new addition Jared Crick on the ends. In the linebacking corps, the Broncos took their time signing their top pass rusher in Von Miller but he does return to lead the pass rush. The loss of Trevathan is a big one while DeMarcus Ware works his way back from an injury last year. It will be a depleted group while they look for the return of Ware in the pass rush and Todd Davis tries to fill the hole left by Trevathan. Another injury will hurt the secondary as Aqib Talib tries to recover from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Kayvon Webster will fill in until he can return while the rest of the “No Fly Zone” remains intact to stop the passing game like they did last year. The Broncos are a team with a lot of questions due to injuries and departures but the talent is still there to win the division.

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The Chiefs were struggling at the start of the 2015 season as they couldn’t seem to find a way to win. They continued a streak of receivers not catching touchdowns and they lost their best player in Jamaal Charles to injury. It was a struggle for the Chiefs as it looked like they were going to sink to the bottom of the division with some big changes likely in the future after another year falling short. Then the Chiefs turned everything around winning ten straight games and playing themselves into the playoffs. The Chiefs hope that the second part of the year is the season they will have from the start. They will look to do that with Alex Smith leading the way again as the QB mainly known as a game manager has solidified himself as a starter. He may not be the player that can take over a game but he gets the job done and does it successfully. He will look to get the receivers off to a better start as Jeremy Maclin and Chris Conley have the ability to break a game wide open. Travis Kelce was a bit of a surprise last year but turned out to be one of the best targets for Smith. Jamaal Charles returns in the backfield hoping for a healthy year because when he his healthy he is one of the best players in the game. On defence, the Chiefs look strong as well with a good line led by Jaye Howard and Dontari Poe who provide a good front. The linebacking corps will be a depleted unit as their best player, Justin Houston, is still recovering from an ACL injury and will not be back at the start of the season. Instead, the group will be led by Tamba Hali who hopes to stay healthy alongside Derrick Johnson. They will have a young star on the end instead of Houston, as Dee Ford has some big shoes to fill. The secondary has also seen some losses as Sean Smith has left the team and Husain Abdullah retired. They still have the emotional leader of the team in Eric Berry and their young star corner in Marcus Peters. Phillip Gaines and Ron Parker fill the other two spots as they are not the same as the other players who left but they can fill in alongside two great defenders. The Chiefs cannot afford to start the season like they did last year because there is only so many comebacks they can produce. They have some missing pieces this year but they are still a good team that can challenge for the division. If they start off well they will be in the fight until the end especially when some missing pieces return. If they stumble out o the gate they likely don’t have a comeback left in them for this year.

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The Raiders seem to be the team that everyone is looking at this year as they impressed everyone last year with how good they were. The Raiders have spent a long time trying to build a team that can win games and there were some rough years as they built. Even before they began this latest rebuild the Raiders had struggled to be great and stay great. Now they enter a new season looking to take the promise they showed in 2015 into a good season in 2016. The turnaround started with the offence as the Raiders found what they needed to be a potent offence. Like many struggling teams, they needed to find a quarterback and they got their quarterback when they drafted Derek Carr in 2014. He turned out to be the solution at that position but for all of his potential he had nobody to throw to. That is where Amari Cooper came in as the rookie proved that he belonged last year. The pair of Carr and Cooper is the linchpin for the Raiders as they need both to continue their development if they want to get anywhere in 2016. Michael Crabtree provides a secondary target for Carr while they will hope that Lee Smith can be the short target if the long bomb is taken away. The running game has always been important to the Raiders and it continues to be as Latavius Murray has been a great back. Breaking 1,000 yards last year, Murray helped to provide some kind of balance to an offence that has become an essential part of the team. On defence, the conversion of Khalil Mack from linebacker to defensive end was a successful one. As he continues to develop to a new position and could be a great end for the Raiders. They will continue their youth movement by starting Jihad Ward on the other side in his rookie season hoping that the two young players can upgrade their pass rush. At the second level, the Raiders will look to Malcolm Smith as their leader who is constantly on the field while new signee Bruce Irvin tries to help the rush even more. In the defensive backfield, the arrival of Sean Smith is a big boost to a team that lost their leader, Charles Woodson to retirement. New arrival Reggie Nelson also provides an upgrade for the team as the loss of Woodson hurts but the two new arrivals should be big for the team. The Raiders are a team with a lot of potential but the challenge will be making good on all of that potential. If they can improve on last year they might be a surprise team to challenge for the division title as they are the big dark horse pick for this season.

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There was a time when the San Diego Chargers were the team to beat in the west as their offence was too potent to stop. That potent offence is no longer there though as the Chargers fell to the bottom of the division in 2015. A lot of that had to do with a defence that wasn’t good enough to stop anyone and an offence that couldn’t keep up. The off-season meant a lot of work for the Chargers as they tried to fill all of the holes in their line-up with the new season marking a true test in how well they did. There is no doubt that the leader of the team is Philip Rivers who has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league for years. He puts up massive numbers year after year and was the main reason why the Chargers were so good for so long. He can only do so much though and with a big injury to Keenan Allen last year Rivers lost his breakout starter. Allen returns this year and with the addition of Travis Benjamin the passing game has a new look that has to be better than last year. With two deep targets, Rivers has the options he needs to put up big numbers for another year. In the backfield, Melvin Gordon was supposed to be the solution but an injury hampered him last year. He needs to improve and be the back that the Chargers hoped he could be when they picked him with their first pick in 2014. On the defensive side of the ball, the Chargers made some big moves to try to solve their age-old defensive issues. On the line they drafted, and finally signed, Joey Bosa who could be an impact end along with Corey Luiget while free agent signee Brandon Mebane secures the middle of the line. At the second level, the Chargers look to Melvin Ingram to help in the pass rush while they hope that Mati Te’o and Denzel Perryman will be better with a much stronger line in front of them. The secondary is going to miss having a veteran like Eric Weddle to help them out as Jahleel Addae and Dwight Lowery try to make up for the loss. Jason Verrett showed that he can handle the corner but Brandon Flowers struggled last year which is why Casey Hayward was signed as the nickel and potential starter. The Chargers are a better team as they have filled a lot of the holes that they had when they had their worst season since 2003. That should make them better this year but in a division as tough as the west, they still have too many unknowns to compete for the division title.

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Prediction:
The AFC West is only starting to become a great division as every team is starting to get better and beginning to compete. Even with the defending champions in the division is can be anyone’s division as there are young teams and experienced teams but all have questions. The San Diego Chargers are definitely a better team than they were a year ago with many of their biggest holes filled. Still, they are not improved enough and there are still questions that keep them at the bottom of the division. The Broncos may be the defending champions but some key losses and a big question at quarterback give pause to thoughts of a repeat this year. At the top, the Chiefs and the Raiders could be battling it out for first place. The Raiders are young but very talented and they could win the division. They are inexperienced though and that will be the reason they fall in the fight for first. The Chiefs will take it as they are a team to watch all season with a healthy team that knows they can win the division. Whether they can take that to the playoffs is the mystery for the Chiefs.

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